Health Care Risk Expert: There Are Little If Any Signs of Ebola Panic in the U.S.

For some, likely a very small minority of people, Ebola could be inspiring irrational fears that might be as damaging, in a psychological sense, as the physical disease itself. A study last year by the World Health Organization, for example, looked into the physical and mental consequences of three of the biggest nuclear disasters in recent history: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Nagasaki and Hiroshima. What they found was that the greatest threat to the health of victims of these tragedies wasn’t cancer. It was the insidious effects of their fear of developing cancer.

The U.S. has weathered its share of health-care crises in the past: the influenza epidemic that swept the nation in 1918 and 1919, the polio scourge that peaked in the 1940s and 1950s, the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the 1980s. Now, with the announcement Monday that Harborview Medical Center has joined other hospitals across the country in agreeing to accept patients airlifted from West Africa, the level of anxiety on the local front may be building.

More than a month before the first case of Ebola was diagnosed in the U.S. – a 42-year-old Liberian national named Thomas Eric Duncan who brought the deadly virus to Texas last week – a poll by Harvard School of Public Health and SSRS, showed that many in the country are unnecessarily worried about an outbreak here. The major findings were that people with less education, and people who haven’t been following news of the epidemic closely, were the most likely to worry about an outbreak reaching the United States.

The poll found that four in 10 U.S. adults are “concerned” that there will be a large outbreak here. Also, more than a quarter, or 26 percent, are worried that they or someone in their immediate family may get sick with Ebola this year. It is important to note that there was no mention of panic or irrational reactions to the latest public health menace.

Dr. Peter Sandman, one the country’s preeminent experts on health care and environmental risks, said he’s seen scant evidence that the nation is reacting irrationally or inappropriately. “I don’t think we are seeing hysterics. And I don’t think we are seeing panic,” Sandman told Seattle Weekly today.

Best known for his work his crisis communications work dealing with terrorist attacks, epidemics, and on such issues ranging from vaccine autism scares to the siting of hazardous waste facilities, Sandman added, “What we are seeing is worried interest. It is not panic to go to Google to learn about Ebola. It is not panic to check closely to see if your child is having any kind of respiratory problem.”

Speaking by phone from his office in New York, Sandman continues, “It is true when you have a scary risk like this, there is a tendency to overreact. But that is just an adjustment reaction. It clears the deck and gets one prepared to deal with the problem. And most people do adjust.”

Sandman noted that he often gets calls from the media when some kind of public health crisis or other national catastrophe is in full bloom. “I notice that a lot of these reporters will use the word panic in their stories, and I’ll say to them, ‘Do you personally know anyone who is panicking? Is there someone in your newsroom who is panicking?’ And their answer is no.

“Panic is behaving in a way that is harmful. Panic is rushing to the doctor so fast that you run over your grandfather in the car.” Sandman goes on. “Is anyone not going to the work because of this [Ebola outbreak?] Is anyone not going to the movies?”

Public health officials, meanwhile, continue to stress that the disease can spread only through physical contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person who is showing symptoms of Ebola. It cannot be picked up through sneezing or coughing, like a cold or the flu.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says these are the symptoms to watch out for:

Fever (greater than101.5°F)

Severe headache

Muscle pain

Weakness

Diarrhea

Vomiting

Abdominal (stomach) pain

Unexplained hemorrhage (bleeding or bruising)

The CDC says symptoms may begin to appear anywhere from 2 to 21 days after exposure to the virus, and that the average incubation period is 8 to 10 days.

Fever, headache and muscle pain are fairly common in the early stages of the illness and may seem like flu. But within a few days, someone with Ebola will get much sicker. As the virus begins to take hold of the body, gastrointestinal illness, such as abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea will occur. A patient may have trouble breathing and swallowing, experience chest pain, and develop a rash, excessive bruising and bloody blisters of the skin.

A person in the advanced stages of an acute Ebola infection will begin to have internal bleeding -- what’s known as viral hemorrhagic fever. Ebola can cause hemorrhaging of multiple organs, as well as external bleeding from various orifices of the body including the ears and eyes. While excessive bleeding is the most horrific of Ebola’s symptoms, not every patient develops it.

 
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